Friday August 24th, 2018
12 Elul 5778
Every day that passes, I become acutely aware of the fleeting nature of these last moments of summer. The high holy days seem to barreling at us full steam ahead. In some ways, I’m excited. I always get a sense of possibility, hope, spiritual anticipation as the holy days approach. It is that back to school excitement, the smell of new pencils and erasers, fresh classrooms and fresh eyes of students returning from the adventure of summer. And yet, if you’ll allow me to admit, this week I had my first nightmare about showing up to Rosh Hashana services with the wrong binder and none of my music for the service. So admittedly, this time is both filled with wonderment, awe and opportunity but not without a bit of trepidation or even.. dread.
That said, while the high holy day season is certainly professionally “crunch time” for clergy, it is not exactly smooth sailing for the average “Jew in the pew” either. Elul is a time of reflection and spiritual accounting during which we are encouraged to turn inward and examine how far we have come in the year that has just past.
Elul is a time not only to engage in reflection but also to examine the state of our relationships; with ourselves, with each other, and indeed, with God. How have you treated those who are beloved to you in the past year? Where do you stand?
How have you treated those who are beloved to you in the past year? Where do you stand?
Is there anything you haven’t said that you should have? Or that you did say that perhaps you shouldn’t? We are expected to take an inventory of our relationship and how they are doing, if there is any work or reparation we need to do, and indeed, if there is someone from whom you must forgiveness, now is the time to come to grips with that and start preparing for the process of T’shuva.
Rabbi Paul Kipnes writes;
“Each Elul a friend of mine writes down three lists on a piece of paper:
1. One of people he needs to call to tell them that he loves them and how important they are to him.
2. A second dedicated to those who he needs to call and reconnect with, people who he has lost touch with and needs to reach out to, and
3. A third list – the most challenging – includes people who he has wronged, people he needs to call and ask for their forgiveness.”
If we are indeed engaged in reciprocal and loving relationships it is upon us during this month of Elul and the days of awe to follow to ensure that those relationships are healthy, stable and whole. And if they aren’t, its up to us to address that and move forward.
When it comes to t’shuva, even God is aware how intimidating this prospect can be. We are taught that on S’lichot which we will observe next Saturday night, that we are to recite God’s thirteen attributes in accordance with the covenant made by God and Moses. God tells Moses to reassure the people that in exchange for the recitation of a few special verses of text, God promises to hear our prayers and indeed, to forgive us. This sacred relationship based on faith and trust allows us to make ourselves vulnerable before God without fear of punishment or retribution.
This promise of forgiveness sets an example for us in our human relationships as well. If God can promise forgiveness to the people knowing even our gravest sins, then perhaps we too have the ability to forgive one another and repair the hurt that we have caused either inadvertently or intentionally as long as we hold ourselves accountable.
We all know how heavy of a burden it can be to be saddled with guilt for something we have done wrong. It weighs heavily upon us and for some, can even make them physically ill. However, sometimes the hardest part isn’t asking for forgiveness, but finding it our hearts to forgive. During this month we not only ready ourselves to ask for forgiveness for our wrong doing but we also prepare our hearts to be open enough and vulnerable enough to accept apologies from those who have hurt us. Relationships are complicated and we humans have a unique ability to cause each other deep pain. The rabbis teach that holding on to grudges and indeed begrudging someone forgiveness is actually unhelpful and frankly, unhealthy not only for the person asking for forgiveness but also to the person being asked.
Interestingly enough, this weeks Parsha Ki Teitze rather circuitously addresses this idea of unburdening oneself and the ways in which we are expected to help each other do so. In this parsha, we are taught about a handful of mitzvot that we must follow; one of which is the commandment to help one’s fellow load and unload a literal burden. If for instance, one sees a fellow Jew who is unloading his animal and there is no other individual to assist, he must offer to help.. without asking for pay. The Torah teaches us to act mercifully and generously towards one another and in return G-d will show mercy to us.
In the time of the Torah, I’m sure that our biblical ancestors understood this verse literally. They would often come across someone on the road who was unloading his pack animal and needed assistance. However, For the sake of our conversation, I’d like to interpret this as bit of a metaphor. As such, we learn from this that when we see someone trying unload a burden, whether physical or spiritual, it is our duty to help that person fulfill their task. When someone comes to us with something that has weighed heavily enough on their hearts to inspire them to the act of t'shuvah, we should see this as a spiritual burden which it is our duty to help them unload.
When someone comes to us with something that has weighed heavily enough on their hearts to inspire them to the act of t’shuvah, we should see this as a spiritual burden which it is our duty to help them unload.
This may not always feel fair as sometimes the hurt that has been done to us is so great that we can hardly imagine setting it aside and forgiving. However, part of the struggle and hard work of this month of Elul is readying ourselves for the act of forgiveness not only as the seekers but as the givers as well.
The verse continues by explaining that even if you encounter someone who dislikes you or who you dislike, you are still obligated to help that person.. not simply because they need it but also to help eliminate the hatred in their heart. If one feels dislike for another, they should do something good for that person in an effort to repair the relationship and come to love them.
Similarly, it is written in Proverbs (27:19): “As in water face answers to face, so too the heart of one to another…. We see our reflection in water only when we bend close to it; so, too, your heart must lean down to another’s and then it will see itself in the other’s heart.”
The same concept can be applied to the act of t’shuva. Even if someone has hurt you so gravely that you have hatred in your heart for them, we are expected and obligated to help them unload their burden by allowing them to ask for forgiveness and for not only their sake, but ours as well, we should indeed forgive. In fact, Maimonides teaches that it is flagrant sin to remind a repentant person of their past bad acts in order to embarrass them once they have truly made t'shuvah for them.
In fact, Maimonides teaches that it is a flagrant sin to remind a repentant person of their past bad acts in order to embarrass them once they have truly made t’shuvah for them.
This process acknowledges the challenges of sin and forgiveness. It is neither easy to seek atonement nor is it easy to grant, but we are given the gift of this month of preparation in order to work on ourselves so that we are prepared for both acts and can engage in this spiritual process fully and with commitment.
We are about half way through the month of Elul and as such, its time to take stock of where we are. We are not there yet but before we know it, the walls will come down and we’ll be standing here together reciting the words of the Vidui as a community. When we do, we will cast our collective burdens aside, asking God and one another to have compassion upon us. So I leave you with the words of Rabbi Simeon ben Elazar:
“Why do out of fear
What you can do out of love?
They taught in his name: Love makes you disregard your self-regard.”
This year may we all approach our relationships with less fear and more love and in doing so, may we help make this world a bit more whole.
 Ed. Rabbi Chaim Stern, Day by Day: Reflections on the Themes of the Torah, from Literature, Philosophy and Religious Thought, CCAR Press (1998), 325
 Ibid, 324.